FAITH, JUSTICE, AND RECONCILIATION
MICHAEL FRAZIER, Ph.D.
In the wake of race rioting in the late 1990s and early 2000 in the city of Cincinnati the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio, Christ Church Cathedral and the Christ Emmanuel Fellowship launched a faith-based Racial Reconciliation initiative from October 28th, 2004 at the Christ Cathedral. The Cathedral also initiated a Distinguished Reconciliation Scholar’s series. for which the author was chosen as an inaugural scholar. The following remarks were adapted from the author’s published keynote address.
The social history of Cincinnati began when it was founded as a village in Ohio near the river in 1788. One year after the United States Constitution was written, a military order named the village Cincinnati, in honor of an ancient Roman general of 300 BC, who, victorious in a just war, turned to the pursuits of peace. The Society of Cincinnati was organized for mutual aid and assistance following the end of the American Revolution and the establishment of this new nation.1
From the antebellum days to the present, race relations has presented Cincinnati just like the rest of America with a dilemma: the sin of black slavery, the greed in non-black privilege and the temptation to convert privilege to further racial oppression. Hence, when the depression of 1829 led to a re-definition of occupations in Cincinnati, black jobs–cutting, digging and hauling–were suddenly seen as good enough for unemployed Caucasians. Blacks were forced out of the city.2
When the nation split over the question of slavery, the black community of Cincinnati’s black community organized the Black Brigade to protect the city. The 50th U.S. Colored Troops (Infantry) was made up of men from Cincinnati and other parts of Ohio. They earned five medals of honor for their heroics in battle, the largest number of the 135 black brigades in the Civil war. As elsewhere, this distinguished service did not move the larger community any closer toward equality and justice.
Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the relationship between the two worlds of color have osculated between truce and trouble: truce when things were quiet but simply unsettled; trouble when things were unsettled. In this regard, what role has the Christian faith played in the mediating conflicts in periods of truce and trouble in America and by extension the religious community in Cincinnati?
Cincinnati across time, is a city with a dual personality–a northern city, a southern city, two cultures two unrecognized strivings, and two warring ideals. Racial conflict there had its origins in the late nineteenth century when free blacks and runaway slaves lived in a tense atmosphere.3 Recently, Cincinnati experienced social unrest and the tragic loss of human life. Yet, the vast majority of its citizenry, white and African Americans alike, are believers in Christianity. The central question facing Cincinnati and other communities is this: Is it possible for Christians to reconcile racial animosity while promoting justice, humility and love for their neighbors?
Historically, race and religion have been defining elements throughout the American experience since the arrival of Columbus to the present. One of the reasons religion has been seen, as the critical element in society is because the Christian church is the transmitter of religion and comes from God and racial classification is derived from man. Therefore the intensity of these concerns showed up first in matters of religion and faith: God the creator, God savior, God the father. For example, the pilgrims promised and used as there religious motivations to come to the New World to sit the city of God upon the hill as a beacon to mankind. They saw the task as being larger than anything that they could do at the time so they sought to use the people that they met here and failed. Hence, they turned to Africans to use their intelligence not just muscles and they were brought here as fully human creatures ordered to do complicated things.4
Surveys have shone that 80 percent of Americans call themselves Christians and believe in the acts and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth as related by his followers and apostles. For believes Jesus was crucified by Roman authorities for his ministry among the poor and disposed. He set the standard in the United States for true meaning of faith, justice and reconciliation for all times. Unfortunately, many Christians have not follow Jesus teachings but rater they have supported slavery, discrimination, corruption, racism and greed.5
I concur with one of America’s leading public intellectuals, Cornel West, who argues Christian fundamentalism has distorted the true meaning of the Jesus’ message of love, justice, and mercy. He contends there are two forms of Christianity, Constantine and Prophetic, which have been battling each other since the first centuries of the Christian movements that emerged out of Judaism. Ironically, Jesus’ message of love and justice promoted a separation of his prophetic witness from Caesar’s authority – “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Christ said. Render is associate with the material world (money) and which is the acknowledgment and recognition of the secular magistrate and necessary support that is required to fund the public good in the form of taxes in order to pay for goods and services for citizens.
Nevertheless, when the Roman emperor Constantine realized he could not stop the growth of Christianity he decided to co-op it into the empire and legitimize the faith and provide it with respectability. Unfortunately, the faith lost its prophetic fervor of Jesus and the apocalyptic fire.6
The rich prophetic tradition in the United States has had many powerful voices against social injustices. In the 19th century the Social Gospel moment was influenced by the corruption and greed that were flourishing in American industry expansion and spoke out against its many injustices. Theologian Walter Rauschenbusch and others warned that Christians had a duty to combat the abuse of workers by management that was not constrained by morality or government regulation.7
During the national trauma of the Vietnam War, priests and other prophetic Christians led antiwar activities and established SANE/FREEZE, the largest peace and justice organization in the United States. Numerous black prophetic Christians worked tirelessly for the disinherited and the oppressed in the spirit of Jesus. Some of these include Martin Luther King, Jr., David Walker, Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, Benjamin E. Mays, Howard Thurman and many others.
Today, many of the communities of Christian are in crisis because they have been seduced by the market economy, which motivated by greed and the Christian faith is defined by creed. A balance must be struck between the two because, unfortunately for many, there is a deficiency of life necessities. Social naivety has resulted in a Christian finding themselves surprised when their fellow colleagues of color disturb the entire community in their quest for justice. For example, in April 2001, the intensity of anger in Cincinnati came as a shock to national and local authorities after rioting erupted in several minority neighborhoods. The instruments through which faith and justice worked during the Civil Rights era was the belief in faith in America’s ability to pursue justice with all of the risk that was entailed by that pursuit.
The United States was founded on the proposition that justice in this world was possible and it needs not conflict with the idea of spiritual justice. We are of course, discussing social justice; justice within the beloved community. Social justice in this nation has been seen as both a goal and an experiment. The goal it appears to me was to maximize the presence of justice and minimizes the presence of injustice through self-government. This goal led our founding fathers to reject the injustice of kingly rule and the idea of titled aristocracy, and exalt the common man as reflected not in King George III, but Benjamin Franklin the citizen. The new America was seen as the new Eden based upon the doctrine of we the people but equally not only in the sight of God but the eyes of one another. Thus, justice and equality in their most basic sense have been the larger goal of this experiment we call the United States of America. The means by which this is obtained has to do with how we distribute the good things of this rich nation. The method to achieve such a vision is far beyond the power of the politicians and rest with the moral power of the committed Christian who which to close the gap between religious principles and social practice.
While all faiths have a gap between principle and practice, America’s failing in this regard has been enormous. For instance, the Civil War was the most violent on our soil based upon our failing to recognize human equality and natural rights of the none offending persons of color. Slavery was a sin so great that the experiment almost failed, and only through a combination of the inherent principle of this nation and its Christian character rightly understood does not justify the reduction of any of Gods children to the level of beast of the field.
The American people paid for this lapse in justice through the Civil War, which ended legal bondage but not the presumptions upon which this bondage rests. A failure to follow through in the rectification of our egregious moral error meant that we are still in the process of trying to comprehend the nature of this ongoing injustice as reflected in the gap between white and black in length of life, quality of health, level of income, volume of inherited goods, levels of education access and attainment—gaps so large that we have what the eminent historian, John Hope Franklin, called the worlds of race, or the 1967 Kerner Commission Report on Civil Disorders deemed, two nations under one flag.
For many of us the injustices cited above are seen as willful immoral situation that the most powerful and wealthiest nation on the globe tolerates, one wherein we presume to remove the mote from the eyes of other nations and ignore the beam in our own. Thus, we speak of nation building in places like Iraq and others areas around the globe. We speak of rebuilding nations and not rebuilding our own to enlarge the presence of justice for those damaged by our moral failings.
Reconciliation is the restoration of justice to our civil community. It is both a process and an end product. The process is what we do through instruments in which we act, and the concrete goals we pursue. The end state of reconciliation is a condition of justice, which no reasonable persons, however placed in life, can complain. Ideally, it is the kind of situation that restores our faith in the American dream and Martin Luther King’s up lifting version of it. It is a condition that restores Gods faith in us. The world has seen of many reconciliation experiences; Protestants and Catholics have reconciled to live in peace, the national combatants of World War II are now colleagues in economics and world trade; South Africa officially established a reconciliation structure known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to implement that law. They recognized where they were and they are continuing to define their vision as to where they want to go. This nation has been involved in the reconciliation process but, our reconciliation needs to be based on a moral principle and social standard that we have develop in principle, but have yet to reach in practice.
It is not for me to construct the details of reconciliation devices and operations. Rather, it is for committed Christian on the ground in Cincinnati and other communities to develop an inventory of activities aimed at specific targets. The attainment of these goals represents a movement toward justice as reality and justice as righteousness.
Michael Frazier, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Political Science and the Executive Editor, Government & Politics Journal.
1 Leonard Curry, The Free Black in Urban America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981, p. 245).
2 Ohio Anti-Slavery Society, Memorial of the Ohio AntiSlavery Society to the General Assembly of the State of Ohio (Cincinnati: Pugh and Dodd Printers, 5th and Main, 1838, p. 18).
3 Beverly A. Bunch-Lyons, Contested Terrain: AfricanAmerican Women Migrate from the South to Cincinnati, Ohio 1900 – 1950. New York: Routledge, 2002.
4 Ronald Takki, FromDistance Shores. New York: Little brown, 1989.
5 John W. Wright, ed. The 2004 New York Times Almanac (NY: Penguim Putman, Inc., p.487). The Episcopal Church in Southern Ohio, “What We Believe”, http://www.episcopal- dso.org/index.php?, 9/10/2004.
6 Cornell West, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism. NY: The Penguin Press, 2004, p. 65.
7 Ibid., p. 166.
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